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The University of Texas at Austin

Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs

Heinrich and CFRP Improving Child Support Policy and Outcomes via Pathbreaking Research

March 12, 2014

Faculty at the Center for Health and Social Policy (CHASP) are engaged in range of research projects that aspire to improve child and family outcomes. One particular area of focus at the Center is child support policy.


Many poor children live with a single parent and rely heavily on financial support from a noncustodial parent. On average, child support paid by a noncustodial parent contributes to about one-third of income among families receiving current support, and considerably more among families living below the poverty level. In this context, substantial declines in disadvantaged adult males' employment and earnings in the last decade, exacerbated by the recent recession, have had direct and distressing consequences for poor families.

The most recent child support debt statistics tell us that nationwide, child support arrearages have grown to more than $111 billion. Unpaid child support debt not only reduces resources available to custodial families, but it also requires public Child Support Enforcement (CSE) agencies to expend more resources and increase enforcement actions for noncustodial parents. More public funds are spent today on CSE administrative expenditures than on federal government appropriations for workforce development programs.

Current Research

Faculty and researchers working under the aegis of the Child and Family Research Partnership (CFRP) are conducting research with the goal of bridging research and policy, particularly in the areas of child support, family strengthening, adolescent development, and early childhood intervention. At the CFRP website, you can read more about our research on establishing paternity and evaluations of the Texas Child Support for College Program (CS4C), the HEROES (Help Establishing Orders Ensuring Support) for Children in Military Families Project, and the Arrears Payment Incentive Program (APIP).

CHASP researchers invited parents to attend information sessions for the Texas APIP Pilot Evaluation

The Texas APIP program is an extension of research that began in Wisconsin under the direction of Professor Carolyn Heinrich, CHASP director, who (with colleagues) investigated the causal linkages between growing child support debt and noncustodial parents' participation in the labor market and the effectiveness of policy interventions designed to reduce child support debt and mitigate its consequences. Research on this topic is essential because debt may be both a consequence of nonpayment of child support as well as a cause of nonpayment. If debt discourages cooperation with CSE efforts, or undercuts incentives to work in the formal labor market, increased enforcement may be counterproductive in reducing child support debt.

Heinrich and colleagues found substantial negative effects of child support debt on noncustodial parents' child support payments and formal earnings. In addition, working parents appear to reduce work effort (and child support payments) more than parents with weaker connections to the labor market, suggesting a serious unintended consequence of policies designed to help support poor families.

In a collaborative effort between the State of Wisconsin Bureau of Child Support and the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, Heinrich worked with policymakers and child support agency staff to design and evaluate a pilot program that would draw noncustodial parents with large debts back into the CSE system by offering them new incentives to pay child support. The results of the evaluation showed that noncustodial parents paid significantly more child support (more than a hundred dollars more per month) than nonparticipants, were more likely to pay in a given month, and had significantly larger reductions in debt balances owed to custodial parents and the state.

The Texas Office of Attorney General has now developed its own version of this arrears payment incentive program and, with CFRP, is currently piloting the program and evaluating its effectiveness in Texas. Learn more about the Texas APIP pilot and read the draft evaluation findings on the CFRP website.

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